Saint Agnes’ Eve

1 – Darcy

He held his wife in the candlelit darkness, whispering soft words—tender, foolish words he could not imagine uttering to another woman—as he rubbed her back the way a parent would soothe a fretful child. As he did almost every night, he looked down at her face and form, exquisite in her slumber. He could almost count the eyelashes, and he had memorized the curves of her fair, rounded cheeks, the graceful arches of her eyebrows. He had studied her ears and the delicate line of her neck where it disappeared under the collar of her nightdress. He sighed. He would not think of the rest of her body, now hidden by the bedding. He had caught ravishing glimpses of her breasts, but he had never touched them. He was more familiar with her graceful legs, her curved hips and tiny waist, the enticing scent of her, and the warm place within that welcomed him. He resolutely put these thoughts out of his mind.

She gave a soft little sigh and burrowed beneath the covers, signaling to him that she was deeply asleep. He did not touch her lips—ah, her lips—and instead left a gentle kiss on her soft, dark curls, catching that indefinable scent of fresh flowers and herbs that she used to wash her hair. Then he gently laid her down, something he had learned to do without awakening her, before pulling on his dressing-gown, putting out the candle, and tucking the covers over her shoulders and under her chin. As he reached the communicating door between their two rooms, he turned for one last look. Once he had gained his own room and shut the door silently, he hurried to get into his own bed, steeling himself against the icy-cold sheets. He put out the candle and composed himself for sleep.

Fitzwilliam Darcy considered himself the most fortunate man in England. He had secured the affections of Elizabeth Bennet and had brought her home as his bride. They had been married for a month at Christmas, a holiday they celebrated at their Derbyshire home, Pemberley surrounded by their families and their most intimate friends. Prior to that, they had enjoyed the seclusion of a brief honeymoon in the Darcy house in London. Elizabeth was not a prize catch of the London season. She had no dazzling fortune; in fact, her dowry was almost non-existent. Nor did she meet the current standards of “classical” beauty. A petite brunette, she was blessed with a womanly, graceful figure, melting dark eyes, and a wealth of dark curls. Darcy turned from one side to the other as if to banish the disturbing thoughts of her physical beauty.

Darcy was as aware as any man that beauty is fleeting. The things that had finally made him realize that she was the only woman he could ever love or marry were less tangible, more enduring than her beauty. She was born to be happy, and sometimes it seemed to him that her lively interest was drawn by everything and everyone surrounding her. She was among the most intelligent people, of either sex, that he had ever known, with a sharp, keen mind that was quick to grasp and to learn. Her merry ways and mocking smile could quickly melt into tenderness, as they often did with him. She had a way of brightening the dark corners that sometimes threatened to encroach on his spirits, lightening his mood with a single ironic quirk of an eyebrow and a sweet smile. Most importantly, Darcy believed that she had called him to be a better man, that she had awakened all those best parts of him that had had been there all along but that had been buried by his most improper pride. Her frank refusal of his first offer of marriage had stung him into an examination of his heart and his conscience, calling him—or goading him—to be his best self. She was immeasurably precious to him.

Darcy turned again, onto his back, staring up into the shadows of his bed-canopy in the darkness. He had to acknowledge that he had been equipped with his principles by his father, and that his wife was helping him in his efforts to perfect them. Old Mr. Darcy had been just, merciful, and compassionate; though he was often stern with his only son, he had instructed Darcy carefully in his duties to his family and what he owed his dependents, tenants, and servants as well as to the larger world. In his youth, Darcy had learned to be diligent in his work, open-handed in his dealings with the poor and needy, and scrupulously fair and kind to those he was responsible for. Although his responsibilities had come to him at a young age, he had stepped into them competently and had been mostly successful.

What might be termed his sentimental education had been a little less clear-cut. George Darcy had been a remarkably moral man. He had also been deeply, truly in love with his wife, Lady Anne. Theirs had been a true love match, and their passionate devotion to each other, and to their young son, had been evident to all, even to Darcy as a child. There are secrets in any marriage nevertheless, secrets that are known only to the husband and wife, and this was true of the Darcys. Anne’s health was fragile, and bearing her firstborn had been far too taxing. The depth and sincerity of her love for her son was unquestionable, as fixed and unmoving as her love for her husband. She longed for another child, but after several tragic miscarriages, she and her husband decided, for the sake of their son, to follow the joint advice of a physician and a midwife that another child would kill her. They would avoid another conception. After a few years, Anne could no longer follow that path. She began to beg her husband for another child, and eventually he capitulated. Their baby, Georgiana, was bright, beautiful, and healthy. Of course, the birth proved to be too much for Anne, and within the year, her strength had ebbed away, and she reluctantly slipped out of the life she loved so much. Her husband endured another twelve years without her before he followed her to the grave.

His experiences had given George Darcy some decided opinions about married life, and his moral code required him to share them with his son. “Women of our class are delicate,” he would say. “Their spiritual sensibilities alone make this so, but they are often also more physically delicate. Baser instincts are present even in the finest, most moral men because we are the stronger sex. Even the ancients, in their great wisdom, asserted that gentlewomen always suffer more in childbirth. A man must spare the delicacy of the woman he loves whatever he suffers on his own account.” He went on to explain that marital relations should always be undertaken for the creation of children, according to God’s plan, and that it was incumbent on the husband to undertake these encounters, in the words of the marriage service, “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.” Darcy recalled that his father had practical and frank advice on how this should be carried out. The wife should not be importuned or imposed upon too often. A true gentleman always asked his wife’s permission before visiting her. Her modesty should be protected by sparing her the sight of her husband’s nakedness. Her husband must also take care never to uncover more of his wife’s nakedness than was absolutely necessary.

Of course, the senior Darcy was well aware that the flesh is weak. Although he had never felt the need to resort to them himself, he commented obliquely on the availability of private establishments in London or thoroughly vetted Cyprians in exclusive relationships—should such measures become necessary. He insisted that wives should be sheltered from any knowledge of such activities. And he was adamant that young girls and women of lower classes should not be harmed, shamed, or even touched. Virtue was to be protected wherever it was encountered. He stressed all of these precepts over and over during several lengthy and serious discussions with his son over the years.

After his earlier encounter with his wife, and after a couple of hours of tossing as he thought about the advice of his father, Darcy was still wide awake. He gave up in disgust, threw on his dressing-gown against the now-glacial chill, and walked barefoot to the fireplace to make up the fire. Then, armed with a brandy, he sat in his chair and thought—or perhaps he brooded. He had never had any trouble following his father’s advice on the defiling of local maidens. His exposure to Wickham had given him a lifelong disgust of such behavior. He had already contributed funds to four innocents and four wronged mothers whose lives had been destroyed by that wastrel. He had expended considerable resources on securing the marriage to Lydia Bennet, and he had little hope that he would ever see the end of Wickham.

His earlier experiences in London had been in the correct, discreet establishments described by his father, and there had also been young widows and a well-conducted, satisfying affair when he had the keeping of an experienced auburn-haired professional beauty. That arrangement had ended a few years ago with no regrets and some very pleasant memories. Since that time, he had been alone, focused on his estates, his family, and—quite frankly—on avoiding the traps laid by unmarried ladies from his own set. That was, until he had lost his heart to Elizabeth.

His thoughts had led him neatly around in a circle, and he allowed himself to think of her again. He had done his best in their encounters so far. He did his best not to surprise or offend her, and he judged that his efforts were creditable. He went to her most nights attired in nightshirt and dressing-gown, tapping gently at their shared door and entering with a bottle of wine, or sometimes even a pot of tea. Her warm smile, which she seemed to keep just for him, always greeted him, and her eyes were always alight. They would sit on the sofa by her fire and talk. Most times there were many things they wanted to share; the experiences of the times they spent apart, glimmers of humor and bits of frustration, serious plans and more trivial ones. They freely shared advice and counsel. They discovered that they both had the same wry manner of looking at the world and its people, and Darcy rejoiced in his wife’s teasing, her sense of the absurd, and her ability to cheer him.

At some point, he would look over at her and smile, she would smile back, and they would walk to her bed hand in hand. Here they shared tender words and sweet, chaste kisses. He would caress her gently and intimately, taking care never to be rough or to hurt her, never allowing her to become too passionate, shielding her from the weight of his body, the sight of his naked self. The moment of their joining was pure bliss for him, always tempered by his desire to cherish and protect her. In the moments afterward, he would settle them both, holding her, confiding his love, watching her fall asleep. Then he would leave her and return to his own bed, counting the hours until they could meet in the morning.

Darcy was startled by the sound of a log falling into the fire. The room was cold again, and he had all but finished his brandy. He checked the fire and sought his chilly bed once more. As he stared up again at the canopy, he faced the truth about himself without flinching. While their encounters satisfied his basic physical needs, he was on fire for her. His body and his entire being blazed with his thirst for Elizabeth.

2 – Elizabeth

Elizabeth Darcy stirred from her deep sleep. She heard the distant sound of a clock downstairs chiming three o’clock. It was at this precise time that she seemed to wake up every night. Perhaps she had grown cold under the covers, or perhaps she needed a drink of water. She rejected the idea of coming out of the covers on such a cold night, as she felt she might never get warm again.

As usual, her first thoughts were of her husband and his earlier visit. She lived for those times when they were together intimately. She loved everything about his visits. The time spent quietly by the fire talking over their days, sometimes laughing, sometimes silent, was precious to her. She could never remember hearing her parents talking in that way. She always felt a shiver of excitement when he would finally smile at her, raise an eyebrow in inquiry, and lead her gently to the bed. His care for her was exquisite. They would share sweet, sweet kisses, lips clinging together. Sometimes he would forsake her mouth in favor of her forehead, her eyes, her cheeks. She admitted that his kisses to her ears and neck were among the most delightful. When she would kiss him back in imitation, she was rewarded with his sharply indrawn breath and his murmured expressions of delight.

When the time came for their joining, he would always find some way of asking first, and she would always smile and breathe a soft “yes.” He would settle them comfortably, raise her nightgown, and begin to caress that secret place between her thighs. At some point, she would feel a sensation of wetness—embarrassing at first until she realized it was supposed to happen—and then he would join with her. It gave her such an exquisite feeling of fullness that she had to remind herself who was in charge and that she should lie still so that he could take his pleasure. The effect on her husband seemed to be profound. Sometimes he would close his eyes, although more often they were fixed on her. Sometimes his breath became ragged, and hoarse, and involuntary sounds escaped his lips. Occasionally his face and head would become damp with perspiration, and she would gently stroke the hair away from his forehead and eyes. The sweetest times were at his moment of completion when he would call out her name—gasping, or sobbing or whispering. She watched his face at those times, observing that he seemed to go away for a few moments to some other place; he always returned to her quickly with his slow, sweet smile, and he would hold her in his arms and whisper the sweetest endearments until he had lulled her to sleep in the warm bed. Only later would she awaken to find he had returned to his own rooms.

Elizabeth buried her head in the sheets and pillows, trying as she often did to catch a hint of Fitzwilliam’s warm, masculine scent. She came near to craving it. It soothed her in those long hours of darkness. She felt a hot flush of embarrassment spread over her cheeks. She was forced to admit this craving if only to herself. She loved encountering him in the late hours of the morning as he came in with the other gentlemen from whatever had been their morning’s pursuits. She would embrace him and catch the warm tang of his sweat overlaid with the smell of horses or gunpowder or some other remnant of their activities. Her husband would kiss her, and with a smile, excuse himself to go and make himself presentable.

She was certain, in her heart, that she was far too wanton. Her mother was her only counsel on married life. Both Elizabeth and her sister Jane had been the beneficiaries of many lectures in the days and weeks leading up to their double wedding. A lady was always a lady, her mother had said, even in the bedroom. They would be placed on pedestals and treated like queens if only they would ensure that the restraint they had learned in the drawing-room would be carried through to the bedroom. They must behave with modesty, delicacy, and patience, always submitting to their spouses. The best way was simply to lie quietly back, always smiling, never showing any undue or vulgar emotion. Mrs. Bennet assured them that they would gain ample satisfaction as their babies began to arrive and that they would find their true reward in being the hearts of their households. She was also liberal in her allusions to the joys of carriages, fine laces, and pin-money. She stressed the vital importance of providing an heir. For this reason alone, relations should be allowed whenever the husband requested them, although a wife should never be so bold as to request them herself.

The two sisters had discussed these lectures, always delivered to both of them, only briefly. Both young women had come to rely over the years on their Aunt Gardiner, their mother’s sister-in-law, for sensible advice about a variety of topics. Both had expected to discuss issues of married life with her, and they had been disappointed. Aunt Gardiner had been ordered to bed for a difficult pregnancy with her fifth child, and therefore Elizabeth and Jane had communicated only happy news, exciting chatter, and bits of gossip in their letters. They felt her absence keenly in the days leading up to their wedding, and the days afterward had included some concern for her. Word had finally come to Pemberley two days before Christmas that their aunt had been delivered of a “beautiful boy,” that she and the child were well and happy, and that she was wild to see them. But it would have to wait.

Elizabeth and Jane had been anxious to see each other over the Christmas holidays, but they had been too shy to speak of the most private things. Jane looked happy, and Elizabeth felt certain that she, herself, looked happy, too. She was the happiest she had ever been. Deeply in love with her husband, she felt entirely secure in him, blessed with the conviction that their affection could only deepen over time. She had long since given up trying to decide how or even why she had come to love him so much. After the hard parting between them in Kent the previous spring, and after the disaster of her sister’s infamous elopement with George Wickham, she had become convinced that she could not bear to know that Fitzwilliam Darcy was alive in the world and thinking ill of her. That deep conviction seemed to mark a turning point in her feelings towards him, and she had never looked back. His kindness to her family in securing Lydia’s marriage had only reinforced her affection. She could not imagine a better man. Her own father had summed it up perfectly: “He deserves you.” Sometimes Elizabeth could not believe that it had all turned out for the best.

She tried to settle more deeply in the covers, questing for vestiges of warmth in the bed, only to be annoyed as her feet encountered an icy-cold spot in the sheets. She resolutely turned her thoughts back to the Gardiners and their new little boy, who was to be called Thomas. She had been invited to stand as his godmother, and she looked forward to performing that office in the spring. There was something indefinable about her aunt and uncle and their marriage, something she could not quite set her finger on. Obviously, they loved each other. Their mutual esteem was evident to all who knew them well. But there was something else. Occasionally a look would pass between the pair of them—a fleeting glance that quietly proclaimed that each of them was pleased with the other. She could not account for it. But she thought, oh she thought, that she had seen the same fleeting look on the faces of her sister and Charles Bingley.

Elizabeth’s thoughts returned to the worrying idea that she had a defect in her character. With no guidance but her own observations and no experienced confidante, her inmost thoughts seemed (in the words of her cousin Collins) to be “naturally bad.” She had certainly come to her marriage in complete innocence and chastity. She belonged to Fitzwilliam Darcy, heart, mind, and body. Where, then, did these feelings come from? She felt her face break out in another flush, followed by cold perspiration that chilled her. Burrowing for warmth, she decided to face the facts about herself. She had done so before, often with unpleasant or startling results. But if she could look at herself honestly, at least she would know where she stood.

The plain truth was that she was ravenous for her husband’s touch, for his body. His hands, his lips, his gentle kisses and caresses sent little paths of fire along her nerves. Some deep-seated part of her felt there must be more. She wanted to touch him. The triangle of flesh at his neck, revealed by his nightshirt, half tormented her. She could see and sometimes feel the light sprinkling of dark hairs there, and the curve where his neck joined his shoulders. She admired the sight of him before he put on his coat or after he took it off, when the immaculate linen and form-fitting clothes hinted at the powerful body just beneath, hidden from her view. Because she was trying to be unflinchingly honest, she continued her inventory, pushing herself to face the facts. Her breasts ached when she pressed against him. She knew with certainty that they were the God-given instruments for providing life to her children. She had certainly observed women of her own class as well as tenants and other neighbors nursing their infants. She even had recollections of her own mother nourishing her younger sisters in turn. Even the flighty Mrs. Bennet disapproved of wet-nurses and fostering unless something went wrong. She had learned to regard such times as tender, almost sacred moments, and she had looked forward to having a babe of her own. Why, why, then, did she want her husband to touch her there? She concluded it must be a perversion. But oh, her depravity was worse even than this. She should face the fact that she was entirely fascinated by that most secret, most intimate part of him, the virile member that seemed to have such a life of its own. He kept it decently hidden behind layers of sober cloth or beneath his dressing-gown and nightshirt. At some magical point, when he kissed and caressed her, it would change, growing hard and powerful so that he could join with her. She knew it was the means by which he shared his seed with her, and she knew that the act caused him pleasure. Unaccountably, it caused her pleasure too, though apparently not as great as his. She wanted to feel more of it. Above all things, she wanted to touch him there, to see and handle that mysterious part of him.

Elizabeth turned on her side. There was no one, not even her beloved Fitzwilliam, in whom she could confide these things. She was on her own, and she resolved to do her best to overcome all of these obstacles, to provide him with the best home she could, and to see to his comfort in all things. She wanted more than anything else to make him happy because she understood that she loved him so much that her happiness depended on his. She would endeavor always to do nothing that would cause him to think ill of her. She fell asleep clutching the pillow where he had last laid his head

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